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Will seventh time be the charm?

Vacant restaurants like the former Hullabaloo's await new tenants to join a thriving restaurant row.

Published January 22, 2006

NEW PORT RICHEY - Caribbean didn't cut it.

Barbecue went cold. Three times in a row.

Former radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge's chicken wings didn't fly.

Now Hullabaloo's has quietly faded away, the sixth restaurant to open and close at 7041 U.S. 19 in a little more than a decade.

"That particular location has a history of restaurants opening and closing," said Joe Alpine, president of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce. Hullabaloo's "food was good; the people were nice. I can't honestly tell you why they closed."

Two miles south, many wonder what the future holds for the former Leverock's restaurant at 4927 U.S. 19. Fire and bankruptcy killed the Pasco restaurant. The building was repaired. New roof. New windows. New yellow paint. But it has remained empty now since 2003 - an attractive blank spot on U.S. 19.

"I really haven't heard anything about it," said Dewey Mitchell, co-owner of Prudential Tropical Realty. "I'm kind of wondering what's going on like everyone else."

The two failures stand out in what Realtors say is a thriving U.S. 19 restaurant scene.

Entrenched brand names such as Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Chili's put an edge to local restaurant competition, especially on the sit-down steak and seafood level of Hullabaloo's and Leverock's. More big brands are on the way. New Port Richey is talking to Cracker Barrel about opening a location on U.S. 19. And Giordano's, a Chicago-based pizza chain, says it plans to open a branch in March at the old Hops Grill & Brewery at 10042 U.S. 19.

But experts say big brand marketing alone can't explain why restaurants fail.

Leverock's, for example, was a beloved Tampa Bay institution on a prime waterfront lot far from the chain restaurant cluster around Gulf View Square Mall. It also had the advantage of being on the spot of another Pasco institution, the Sea Market.

Owners George Lewis and John Stross sold all but one of the Leverock's franchises to Gold Coast Restaurants Inc. in 2000. Now, Gold Coast is tied up in bankruptcy court, and Lewis and Stross operate the only remaining Leverock's on St. Pete Beach.

"We always did phenomenal business in New Port Richey," Lewis said. "At our St. Pete Beach location, we continue to pay close attention to the guests, treat our employees properly and pay attention to the day-to-day details. I won't comment on what Gold Coast did or did not do."

A 2005 study published in the Cornell University Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly found that internal management strife was a more significant factor in restaurant failures than external factors such as competition.

"I think franchises have a tremendous advantage over an independent, but it boils down to the manager," said John Self, an author of the study and associate dean of the California State Polytechnic University school of hospitality management. "If they're not good enough, then our research has shown a big company is not going to help."

The study also shattered the conventional wisdom that 90 percent of independent restaurants fail in their first year. Researchers say that number is closer to 26 percent.

Mitchell said restaurant competition on U.S. 19 has increased in recent years. The competitors are mostly familiar brands, which gives them an edge when motorists are making snap dining decisions at 45 mph on U.S. 19.

"I would tend to believe you have a combination of factors," Mitchell said. "I think in general it seems the smaller restaurants . . . have an advantage over larger restaurants because they turn the tables over several times a night."

It will take a power player to resurrect a restaurant at Leverock's. The owner's $4.95-million asking price puts it beyond the reach of most independent restaurateurs.

Lewis, who represents the property owners, STMS Inc. of Clearwater, said several large local chain restaurants have shown an interest in the 1.5-acre property. But investors have also been courted by a gambling boat operator and condominium developers, both intrigued by the property's attractive waterfront location and easy access to the Gulf of Mexico.

"I don't think it will ever be sold as a restaurant again," said Ted Anderson, a Clearwater Realtor who specializes in restaurant sales. "It's a valuable piece of property."

There is a fair chance another restaurant will try to make things work at the 1.2-acre Hullabaloo's property.

Anderson listed the lot last week for $895,000. He said he has already shown the property several times.

"Everyone asks the same question, but there is no one reason why they failed," Anderson said Wednesday. "I'm showing it to a couple of chefs today. I have a couple of high-caliber people looking at it. I can't disclose who they are. They just like the numbers on it."

[Last modified January 22, 2006, 01:02:19]

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